You know, there are about 347 shows I’d like to make. I call them shows. They’re no more than thoughts, really. Most of them would be, I think, sublimely ridiculous and charming.
Yet I am but three people and all my whims cannot be satisfied by this material world whose laws of physics I seem to require for this Theater Work.
There is, for example, the show where you are driven from Minneapolis down to Northfield in a VW bug and we stop the car every couple miles and you see a big-screen movie (yes, every time!) of the way this place used to look 20 years ago. And then we take a little excursion through the movie into what used to be woods and is now a tree and then we camp over night in the tree, and then, THEN, when we arrive in Northfield everyone comes out and sings a song about cows and dead beavers as we drive through the town in our convertible like stars in a Bollywood extravaganza, stinking to high heaven, and people throw corndogs and college catalogs at us in wild celebration and we end up outside of town in my parents yard at night watching the stars that have been blown out of the sky by the lights from the nearby development — the aspiring suburbia of a recently enucleated bedroom community.
Or the one where I re-create Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot beat for beat, but with completely different language, in a completely different setting, with completely different characters, and fundamentally re-imagined for early 21st century black-comic misery rather than mid-20th century black-comic misery.
Or the one set inside a former middle school and you travel through its corridors in couples and trios, following faint music and the smell of bubblegum and gym socks, experiencing the full splendor and agony that is 7th and 8th grade. (But vicariously! C’mon, it’d be fun!)
Or the one where you spend the entire performance checking your watches and your email while a train derails in front of you.
Or Alice In Wonderland as a pornographic opera with guns and CDOs.
Or the one based on what I thought was going on onstage when I first heard Tom Waits’ music from The Black Rider. Oooooo…
Or the one that replicates a Mark Rothko painting in performance. (!)
Or the one that goes on in my head when I hear David Byrne’s pieces from The Knee Plays to Robert Wilson’s CIVIL warS. (That’s really more of a dance piece, I guess.)
Or my version of W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz.
Or the one where we all watch real paint actually peel. And then compare that experience to watching The Glass Menagerie.
Or just do The Glass Menagerie. Straight.
(Anyone want to commission these? There’s more where those came from.)
You know why I don’t do these pieces? Not because they’re crappy ideas. (Every idea is crappy to begin with.) But because to do a show, as many of you know, requires a huge investment of thought, time, energy, money, body parts, medication, and in the end will (much like children) literally remove years of life from your already too wretchedly brief and helpless span. So when it is time to do a show (by the internal clock only — no overseer’s time table for this clockwatcher!) I make a choice. This choice is not based on what is easiest to do, or what would be most popular, or what I can afford, or even which idea is the most fully developed (although these criteria are deeply in the mix).
The choice of which gloriously doomed adventure in which to wallow is made by an estimated criterion of necessity: which will be the most necessary for this particular moment. Life is passing us by — for me no less than for you — and I cannot afford to spend currency and capital on something that is, in the lingo of the biz, “pointless.” I won’t make a show that is dead to the life it which it is immersed.
So it comes down the fair question. With that ticket what ya gonna ride, sweetie?
Furthermore, not only is this hypothetical new work in a losing competition with movies, cable, music, YouTube and Facebook. (It is theater, folks. Or at least theater-ish.) It’s also competing with other theater. And the three of us are over here in Starvation Corner of the theater world, labeled* as “experimental,” “avant-garde,” “alternative,” or “different.” (And that’s Minnesota “different,” as in “Oh yah, well…that was real…different.”) So the stakes are high, the losses heavy, and statistics favor the rich. So clearly, ridiculous and charming are not enough.
Now, if you’re still with me ladies and gentlemen, I am approaching the point. And the section of this reeking bloviation in which I come to the piece at hand. Not long now…
I am always of two — er, six — minds when it comes to The Walker Art Center’s Out There series. Primarily it is a chance for our little Sodom on the Mississippi to witness and (briefly and intermittently) to participate in a small portion of the ongoing life of contemporary performance, and through this, contemporary life.
It is also a chance for some work (not ours, but still, I’m in a generous mood) to gain the momentary central significance away from marginalizing labels. (I prefer to take the term “Out There” literally, as in “at a geographical distance,” rather than as the more casual “weirdo freakout buzz fest.” For example.)
It is also a reminder of the taut frustration of inadequate work. Too often disappointed, I return to the series like a jilted stalker. Or like a child to the vaccination table, terrified of the pain to come.
Whatever its quality, Out There is a chance to take part as a practitioner and as an audience member in an ongoing conversation about the world. I rely on my assumption that art is not only decorative but can, at its best, be a materialization of thoughts as experience. Making work and seeing work are two of my modes of entry to our shared world. I also watch YouTube, read the news, and talk to my family.
So it is with resignation and regret that I confess to finding Call Cutta in A Box: An International Phone Play charming, but not particularly interesting. I was hoping for a more immersive experience, at least, having read the blurbs. In fact, I happened to be in New York last January (like Doug) and I was debating between Call Cutta and Surrender (the one where you pretend to be a soldier in Iraq) and saw the second (unlike Doug). So having researched my choices, I knew a bunch about Box — as much as you can, I suppose, without having seen it and given what little there is to know. But I suspended this paltry knowledge, like a good audience member (I am Minnesotan) and jumped in. (As I also did with Surrender, which is another story entirely.)
So, first, while I share some of my colleague‘s interest in finding out more about the person I skyped with, unlike her I did not feel the need to disrupt the performance itself: I was curious what would come of it on its own terms. But like Ms Kayim I ended up wanting more from the experience.
My experience in Box was not unusual (based on my conversations with others) and I was charmed by the event. I had a little trouble figuring out what was being said in the beginning due to a somewhat shaky connection and a heavy accent, but I picked up on the conversation soon enough. I am not a person who will strike up a conversation at a bus stop, but I was chatting away with this guy — whose name I don’t remember hearing — drinking my tea, watching his face talking to me in India. The most interesting moment for me was when my wife (who was in the office next door) was visible to me through the corner window as well as on my computer screen via skype in India. Yes, we were far away so close, but this didn’t have much to do with the people in the call center.
The truth seems to me to be that the interconnectedness of the world’s communication tools, available to those with access, makes this piece a little redundant. I am not prompted to think about the distance (cultural, geographical or economic) between me and this guy (even with his heavy prompting hints: “Just go down that road and in 15000 miles you’ll be in India!” Sure, and I could stop first the airport, drop $1000 bucks and fly there instead). After all, I know people from foreign lands. I talk to them. I’ve been in foreign lands myself. I skype. I know how to work a cell phone and remote computer access. I’ve had my share of mindless, isolating and demeaning jobs for little to no pay. I’ve even pretended I was somebody else to sell something. That these technologies obliterate distance at the same time that they deny intimacy (and remove the need for memory) is not a revelation to anyone who uses Facebook or even Google. So why were we having a conversation? Was I inspired to think more about globalization in general and call centers in particular? No, I was trying to have a conversation with a guy in another part of the world. I was also trying to engage with whatever I could. I tried hard: I danced, I sang, I described what I saw, I told the truth — mostly. I never got to draw a picture, though. Maybe… There are a million maybes that might have changed my experience, but in the end I had a nice chat with a guy from India Sunday night, what’s for dinner?
Founded in the 1990s Rimini Protokoll has been doing stuff like this since 2000, according to their website, and has been “among the leaders and creators of the theater movement known as ‘Reality Trend.'” The Goethe Institute said (according to the RP website): “There is nothing in the German theater at the moment that takes audiences as close to reality as the works of Rimini Protokoll.” Admittedly this is sparse information on which to base a critique, but in combination with the experience of Box, I am curious: what idea of reality is this?
Reality is fine. I’m just not sure that’s where I want to be taken for my $20 (which I didn’t pay, blogger’s privilege, but the sentiment stands). There is an ongoing trend I find disturbing, most apparent to me in arts funding, toward a system of accountability that relies on economic models. How many audience members do you serve? Are you educating, enlightening, fostering leadership, improving livability? Does art bring money into the community? Reality, as seen from outside performance (and we’ll leave the performance of everyday life for another investigation), is tangible and measurable and thus provides a single authoritative environment in which the variable ephemeralities of artistic experience can be codified into demonstrable units — be made fungible. Look: this is the real world.
Because reality is just as ephemeral and delicate as illusion in performance. Unless you take great care, you will destroy it with your greedy grasp. It is multiple and dispersed, and slips away if you approach it directly. Box came close, here. The scripted structure opened a door to a reality. But this reality was too grounded in me and my too familiar environment to come to life. So the piece died there on the desk. Didn’t even have a spectacular 40 floor plummet. There wasn’t enough, I think, in the piece to pull the realities together — or to demonstrate the gaping gulf between them.
Don’t forget: Desconsoft, the call center, is a place where “Success of Desconsoft is a Promise,” and “CUSTOMER IS GOD.” There are other realities here, too.
A little research reveals that an earlier version of this Box piece took audience members on a walk through the city of Berlin, guided by the voice on the cell phone. This fact reminded me of the pleasure available in some of Janet Cardiff‘s work, which is not pleasure of discovering “reality,” but instead about navigating the overlapping layers of reality and fiction that shift our perceptions of both. There’s life there because, for one thing, there is an excess there. Even though it is one audience member with headphones on a solitary walk. There is movement. Box never left the box. It was not alive to the life in which it was immersed. For all its intimacy, it stayed behind the proscenium arch. Nope, I want more.
“But it is Experimental,” I hear someone say, “and sometimes Experiments Fail and we all learn Something in the Process.”
You know, I understand the logic behind human fallibility (even though it grates on my nerves like cheese on a… cheese grater) and I accept it, reluctantly. After all, one must be humble in the face of one’s own catastrophic implosions when your best efforts go sspllplshshshxxxzztztt and smell like the miserable sulfur-methane expulsion of an ailing bovine.
But experimentation is no excuse for dead work, no matter how skillfully accomplished. True experiments are fine if they’re done in the lab. You can really go somewhere with them. But don’t bring them out to test on me. That’s just rude. I want the real deal.
But I don’t think this was an experiment. Rimini Protokoll is highly experienced. This piece has been many places many times. It is a functioning machine. No, the real failure is the mistaking of — or the unthinking acceptance of — death as life. And that is all of our responsibility, the artists’, the producers’, and the audiences’.
Next time, I want more.
Charles Campbell, Skewed Visions
*By the way, if you’re curious what term might be less hackle-raising than Avant-Garde and its kin, I keep thinking it’d be cool to follow the lead of Mr. Tadeusz Kantor…
“A theater person must be an artist, meaning a person who is entirely devoted to artistic ideas, to their development, challenges, risks, and discoveries, and to a desire to explore the ‘unknown’ and the ‘impossible.’
Up to now, we have referred to such people only as ‘avant-garde artists.’ “
…and just be called Artists.